Yes, the party season is winding down, but here’s a dilemma that can come up at any time: What do you do if you want to be social and have people over, but you don’t want to spend a lot of time cooking beforehand? I know that as I have gotten more and more pregnant, my tolerance for standing in front of a stove has diminished greatly. Here are some ideas I’ve used for putting together a simple but elegant spread without spending a lot of time or effort, beyond perhaps a quick trip to the grocery store.
The Cheese Tray
Of course, the cheese tray is a classic for good reason — who doesn’t love a selection of nice cheeses? But you can get creative with it without too much extra effort. Fresh and dried fruits, nuts, pickles and cured meats all pair well with cheeses. In addition, why not put out one or two unusual accompaniments? One of my favorites is hot pepper jelly, which goes especially well with a creamy cheese like chevre. An unusual mustard, chutney, honey or infused oil would also work. In fact, this is a great opportunity to get rid of that gourmet gift or that jar you picked up on a shopping trip that looked interesting but you haven’t figured out what to do with it.
Breads and Chips
This is another way to get creative without expending too much effort: make your own crostini and chips. Slice up a baguette or cut pitas or tortillas into wedges, brush with oil, sprinkle with a little coarse salt and crisp up in a 400-degree oven for 8-10 minutes, until browned. Other breads will work too. Crostini and chips freeze well, so are easy to keep on hand. I have gotten into the habit of making them whenever I have some bread that is about to turn rock hard and keeping a freezer bag full. Not only are they good to pull out for parties, but they also make yummy snacks.
Straws and Tarts
If you have some puff pastry dough or pre-made pizza dough, you can make a whole host of finger foods. Keep these ingredients on hand in the freezer, and all you have to remember is to take them out to thaw a few hours before the party starts. I have spread pizza dough with pesto and sprinkled with grated cheese, then folded over the edges to form a rustic tart. Other simple toppings, such as sun-dried tomatoes, roasted peppers or olives, would also be delicious. Bake for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven, and the result is a real crowd pleaser.
Or press grated cheese, sesame seeds, herbs or spices into a sheet of puff pastry dough. Cut the dough into strips, twist each strip and bake at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes to make elegant straws. These look nice served in a tall vase or pitcher.
Smoked Fish Platter
This is one of my favorite appetizers (sometimes I make a meal of it): an assortment of smoked fishes, such as salmon, trout and oysters, with a variety of accompaniments. I like to serve smoked fish with those tiny loaves of black bread, sour cream, honey mustard, fresh dill or chives and minced red onion. They also go well with cucumber slices, tomato slices and melon wedges.
Mulled Wine or Cider
One way to ensure that your house smells terrific when guests arrive is to have a pot of mulled wine or cider on the stove, and it’s dead easy to make. Pour 1 bottle of dry red wine or apple cider into a large pot. Add 1 sliced orange and 1 sliced lemon, 2 cloves, 2 cinnamon sticks and a few dashes nutmeg. If needed, stir in some sugar to taste. Bring to a simmer — do not let it boil! — and then keep warm over low during the party.
Since you don’t have to spend a lot of time cooking, you have more time to come up with creative ways to present the food. I actually think these ideas are more fun than the typical trays of hors d’oeuvres, because they can be served in lots of little bowls, plates and platters that you can place at various strategic points around the party area, rather than creating that one central food station where everyone congregates. I love to collect small ceramic dishes and bowls, and a gathering is a perfect excuse to show them off.
The key is to have fun with it. Even the simplest dishes can be impressive, and your guests won’t know what shortcuts you’ve taken. This leaves you more time and energy to actually enjoy your parties.
Happy new year!